Your Plants, Your Garden

Mid Columbia Gardens started selling plants to make available to everyone plant varieties that weren’t being provided by the Nursery Industry:  Red tomatoes bred for long-season heat resistance; sweet, rich orange tomatoes in all sizes; container tomatoes that keep producing all season; peppers unique and integral to cultural cuisine around the world.

We particularly wanted to serve the needs of customers in Eastern Washington, where the summers are long and hot and dry, but irrigation is readily available, and the ground is rich in needed minerals.  We focused on varieties that would go the distance all season, and adjusted our inventory based on customer feedback for local production and quality.

Heirloom Revival

Since we first began, interest in heirloom and non-commercial seeds has increased greatly, and even mainstream nurseries and department stores carry a few varieties labelled “heirloom” to try to capture this market.  Out of over 5,000 open-pollinated (in other words, you can save the seeds) tomato varieties listed in the Seed Saver’s Yearbook or catalogued at Tatiana’s TOMATObase, local stores carry maybe 10?   And that wouldn’t be so bad, except it’s the same ten at every seed stand, every nursery, every department store.  Mostly this is because they all get their seeds, and their plants, from the same place.  Heirlooms are a side-line to these companies, sold in lesser quantity, lesser quality, and higher prices–similar to the organic section in the grocery store.  More on heirloom abuse in a moment.

Nursery and Breeder Consolidation

Every year fewer sources provide more plants to more nurseries.  Chemical companies control most of the seed and propagation lines, so have a vested interest in producing plants that grow best with their chemicals.  We’re very close to a razor blades and printer ink market (wherein the companies sell cheap printers or razors and make up the profits in ink or razor blades).  Companies that breed seeds, cuttings, and graft scions do so entirely for the “intellectual property” benefits, and the larger companies that buy them up do so for the chemical portfolio they can offer alongside them.  It’s hard to fault any of them for doing what they need to to make money, but this consolidation has significantly impacted the types of plants that are available in established retail locations.

Billions of plants are grown to exactly the same standards and dumped into the retail channels long before they can be planted (those warm-weather vegetable plants that appear in hardware and department stores in February will not survive if you buy them and put them in the ground).  Then the supplier buys them back from the stores if they don’t sell.  These plants create a market for the sales of garden chemicals, garden tools, garden services.  Their economies of vast scale allow sales of cheap plants amid staggering numbers of unsold and inappropriately sold retail plants, but do so at the expense of plant diversity and choice.

“Intellectual Property”

Patented, trademarked, hybrid, controlled plants dominate this market.  “Intellectual property,” when it refers to plants, is actually a government-granted monopoly on the reproduction of living things.  Even publicly-funded university programs, which used to return freely-usable plant varieties to the public, now patent, trademark, and tie up the results of their research in as much propriety legal protection as possible in an effort to maximize profits for their cash-strapped programs.  It is illegal to propagate the vast majority of plants (especially annual plants that must be replanted each year) that you buy at a nursery–any nursery–and they’ve done their best to sterilize and hybridize them to the point that even if you do save their seeds, they not only won’t come true, but will produce undesirable plants or won’t even germinate.

So, what’s wrong with economies of scale driving down plant prices for everyone?  Well, first of all, they won’t grow well.  They won’t grow when a customer buys them when they appear in stores and the soil and air are too cold for them.  They won’t grow well when the hormonally-primed and heavily fertilized plants hit your relatively sterile ground and have to shift gears for a completely different environment.  They won’t grow well because they’ve been bred in Alabama and aren’t really equipped for a long-season shrub-steppe in one of the less-common climatic environs of the U.S.  They won’t grow well unless you give them the insecticides, herbicides (for competitors), fungicides, and chemical fertilizers they were bred to grow well with.

A lot of people like the self-sufficiency of growing their own food.  This is diminished when you have to buy seeds or plants from a store every year (since the seeds can’t be saved), buy fertilizers from a store every year, buy poisons from a store every year.  I’m not saying you have to garden for sustainability or self-sufficiency, just that you’re not really going to be able to do so with any of the commercial plants.

Return to Fundamentals

This brings us back to varieties that are not restricted from reproduction.  Heirloom varieties have been saved year after year, selecting for desirable traits along the way.  But there are many types that come true from seed, often called open-pollinated, which have been intentionally bred by professionals, amateurs, governments, and corporations, all over the world.

All of these have been adapted to someone’s garden.  Not your garden, of course.  You need to grow a few.  If something does well, if it tastes good, grow it again.  Save the seeds and share them.  If it doesn’t do well, or isn’t to your taste, or you just don’t like the look of it, grow something different.  5000 varieties and more each year, remember?

If your store only offers 10, though, and those are adapted for other parts of the country, you have a problem.

Hope for Nurseries

For the chemically-dependent, legal-monopoly-reliant, mass-production monoculture industry, is there an alternative?  Of course there is.  Just as in computers we have huge companies that make their money on open-source, community-developed software, we have growing companies like Baker Creek, and the aforementioned Tatiana’s which bring great abundance to their customers while depending on open, uncontrolled seeds and plants.  Will they reach the local level with ready-to-grow plants for you and me?

Well, they used to.  The truth is, the last 50 years have been an anomaly.  Previously, local nurseries grew their own plants from their own seeds and parent plants.  Now, they all mostly grow plants from patented liners sent to them from the same sources.  The local growing cooperatives dictate to their growers what they must grow and how.  Even my favorite local nurseries now grow hardly any of their own stuff.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.  Outside of the immediate Tri-Cities, Washington area, there are many nurseries doing their own thing.  Whenever I travel, I tour the local nurseries, looking for all of the out-of-the-way places doing out-of-the-way things.  I think we can do it here, too, if people are willing to think about what they grow and why.

I’m not out to change an industry.  I just want you to have the same options that your grandparents did.  You can eat the same tomatoes they did, thanks to a vast community that has saved their seeds.  Or you can explore the wondrous new varieties produced by people all over the world every year, and shared, over and over again.

We want to help with that.

 

Plants for sale, 8 May 2017

The following varieties of plants are now for sale at Anything Grows, in Richland.  More to come, but quantities of individual varieties are limited.

  • Chives
  • Kellogg’s Breakfast tomato
  • Gardener’s delight tomato
  • Patty pan squash
  • Early crookneck summer squash
  • Corsican mint
  • Thai basil
  • Genovese basil
  • Red Rubin basil
  • Spicy bush basil
  • Chadwick cherry tomato
  • Speckled roman tomato
  • Black Krim tomato
  • Heidi tomato
  • Brandywine otv
  • Podarok tomato
  • Jaune flammee tomato
  • Shishito pepper
  • Orange sun pepper
  • Topepo rosso pepper
  • Jalapeño m pepper
  • Tam jalapeño pepper
  • Topepo giallo pepper
  • Poblano l pepper
  • Pasilla bajio pepper
  • Habanada pepper
  • Green zebra tomato
  • San marzano tomato
  • Black opal tomato
  • Grape tomato
  • Sioux tomato
  • Marianna’s peace tomato
  • marigold six pack
  • Brandywine sudduth tomato
  • Beauty king tomato
  • Sungold tomato
  • Mortgage lifter tomato
  • JD’s c-tex tomato
  • Chocolate mint
  • Barry’s crazy cherry tomato
  • Pork chop tomato
  • Kosovo tomato

Spring Growing

One of many trays of seedlings being transplanted

The propagation greenhouses are full, and production of baby plants is at full capacity.  Orders have been closed on the shop since we no longer have time to grow out custom orders before it is time to plant them in your garden.  There will be plants available for retail sale in April and May, though, including some things that didn’t make it into the catalog.

Between the new shop (300 entries added to the catalog this winter!) and the weekly newsletters, I’ve been neglecting the main website, which makes it hard for anyone new to see what’s going on.  I’ll be working on back-loading the newsletter content into this site, though, and going forward the newsletter content should appear here within a week or so of being emailed out.

On the tomato front we have around 200 varieties in production for either sales or seed production.  We have another 50 or so that are new to us and under evaluation.  And, of course, we have the dwarf breeding project lines both old and new that we’re working on, as well as a pink cherry tomato that I’m really hoping to find a good selection of this year.  At F7 the “easter egg” line still shows far more variability than expected, so it’s hard to say when this one will finally get nailed down.

Peppers sit at 45 varieties being grown for sale, seed, and testing, plus two dehybridizing lines that I’m investigating.

More interesting things (and pictures!) soon…

Onion plans finalized

We will have onion starts available in bunches starting March 11th.  The varieties will be the same as last year: Ailsa Craig, Copra, Red River, Red Torpedo, and, of course, Walla Walla.  All of these perform well in local gardens and are highly recommended.  You can read more about them on the varieties page.

Peppers

The list of pepper plant varieties has been finalized for 2016, and contrary to expectation, it is longer than last year. Primarily this is because some of this seed needs to be grown out and saved, so some of these will have limited availability. Some of these are also being grown out for assessment, comparison, and breeding projects. Let me know if there’s something unusual on here that you want to reserve. Coming next: cold weather and early spring planting.

Aji Amarillo
Aji Dulce
Anaheim TMR
Ancho San Luis
Cherry Pick F1
Chiltepin
Chinese Giant
Fish
Fooled You
Ghost Pepper
Giant Aconcagua
Habanero
Jalapeno M
Jimmy Nardello
Liebesapfel
Mareko Fana
Moringa Pepper
Orange Sun
Ozark Giant
Pasilla Bajio
Peacework
Poblano L
Purple Beauty
Purple Jalapeño
Quad Giallo
Quad Rosso
Ta Tong
Tepin
Trinidad Perfume
Yellow Monster

New Year, New Plans

Fermenting tomato seeds, 12/2015With the growing season well behind us and the new one still a bit off, December is a month of reviewing what went wrong and right in the old year (and end-of-the-year accounting and taxes).

To the right you can see some of my tomato seed fermenting in my kitchen window in order to clean it and prime it for germination.  This is from one of my tomato breeding projects, and I’m hopeful that within these jars lie exactly the combination of genes I’ve been looking for.  It’s a stinking pile out of which clean seeds arrive with new possibilities.  Tomorrow, I’ll rinse them off and lay the seeds out to dry so that I can plant them in the new year.

To be honest, 2015 wasn’t the best year for Mid Columbia Gardens.  Yet another plan to put up a new greenhouse fell through, leaving me with hard choices to make about what I could start in the spring.  The lack of a proper winter confused my perennials and led to large losses in my perennial propagation stock.  The strange weather also threw off people’s planting and buying habits, which was probably the main contributor to record low plant start sales.  These slow sales in turn backed up the seed start/greenhouse/hardening off/transport chain and left me short of funds and space to start the later plants.  By mid-summer I had to cancel all planned late summer and autumn vegetable and flower sales.

I made a lot of mistakes, too.  I moved most of my communication to Facebook, where I was getting the most questions and messages, and I missed various people who tried to contact me here on the website (sorry to those of you I didn’t get back to!).  I spent so much time dealing with greenhouse trials that I didn’t get down to the Hub to communicate with buyers and volunteers or to put in place proper signage and explanatory materials.  I failed to put together the oft-requested multi-plant packages for those who just want “a bunch of sauce tomatoes” or “a combination of plants to grow for salsa.”  And I failed to ensure that the plants were getting watered after hours enough, rotated often enough, and sheltered enough for our unusually hot and windy weather.

Sorting through all of this, with my limited time and health, it looks like a big pile of mess.  It’s clear that I will have to scale down next year, and shift my focus a bit.  In debt, still short a greenhouse (primarily for lack of a place to put it), and without a predictable market, it’s tempting to overhaul the business entirely and shift my focus elsewhere.  Instead of flushing everything out, though, I find myself sorting through the ugly to find the seeds of possibility for next year.  It’s not going to be easy, and I’m going to have to try some new and untested things, but I suppose that’s what winter is for.  In the dark of winter we clear away the old and make everything ready again, trusting that new life, still too far away to hope for, will come forth in its own time and with its own gifts, yet unimagined.

Learning Opportunities

Large tanks for aquaponics are expensive.  Constructing tanks for fish is a lot of work and the lining is pricey.  Plastic tanks over a hundred gallons or so get expensive fast.  I started collecting large stock tanks off Craigslist, and even managed to buy a few of the IBC containers that are so popular on the Aquaponics websites.

Ultimately I want to build a large system and capitalize on the stability of larger bodies of water and the economies of scale.  I would like to combine this with my other greenhouse work, reaching out the community and providing unusual opportunities and crops.  But first I needed to know what I’m doing.

2'x3' media beds filled with 3/4" expanded shale. Lettuce direct seeded into the near bed.
2’x3′ media beds filled with 3/4″ expanded shale. Lettuce direct seeded into the near bed.

Distractions and false starts aside, I finally built a small closed system in my indoor office in 2013 so that I could study the dynamics of the system.  I incorporated NFT (nutrient film technique, utilizing water running down narrow channels to feed small net pots of plants) and two flood and drain grow beds.  These lived on two shelves of a large wire shelving unit, with grow lights above them and the 40 gallon fish tank on the bottom.  A couple dozen small koi were stocked and I’ve tried growing various things in the system with mixed success.  Which is great, because I learned a lot from every failure.

koi in a small aquarium
Aquaponic filtration allowed me to raise an unbelievable number of koi in a small aquarium.

This system was still running while I setup my new system last year.  The fish were up to 12″ long, and they went into a greenhouse sump for the winter.  They will grace an outdoor display pond in the coming months.  Meanwhile, I’ve been operating test aquaponics system two, a slightly larger 700 gallon setup in the dome greenhouse.

Sunchokes

Sunchokes for sale at the Mid-Columbia Market at the Hub
Sunchokes for sale at the Mid-Columbia Market at the Hub

Sunchokes are also known as Jerusalem artichokes, but they have nothing to do with Jerusalem or artichokes.  I’ve played around with them in my propagation beds and eaten a few.  They might taste a little bit like an artichoke in flavor, sweet and a bit crunchy when raw.  They are better stewed or roasted for long periods to convert the inulin (soluble fiber which can cause gas).

A couple years ago I started selling the “Supernova” variety from Oikos.  I put one or two small tubers in each gallon pot, and people purchased them after they started to get pretty big.  One of these I transplanted into my garden, where it shot up like sunflowers and produced beautiful yellow flowers.  They made nice bouquets on the kitchen table from mid-summer until late fall.

Sunchoke flowerSunchokes are quite hardy in our area, but ought to be lifted every year to harvest and thin them.  In some parts of the country they can be invasive (too dry here, I suspect).  I was busy, however, and never managed to get around to it that year.  Last spring I was delighted to see a dense patch of them sprouting up in the same spot, and the display was even more spectacular than the previous year, although they tended to fall over on top of everything around them.

Digging sunchoke tubersFinally, early this spring I managed to get out there with a small tray to dig up the tubers.  The clump had remained only three to four square feet in size, but the tubers were stacked on top of each other almost twelve inches underground, and so densely packed that it would be more accurate to say that I picked them apart, rather than dug them up.

I soon had to go get a larger container.  When all was said and done, I had 25 pounds of tubers, all from that one small pot.  Although I have had sunchokes in controlled propagation beds, I’ve never stopped to look at just how rapidly these can reproduce in the ground.  I’m going to have to take another look at different ways to prepare them for eating.

In the meantime, if you would like to try growing this unique edible/ornamental yourself, I’ll have tubers and eventually potted plants available for sale at the Mid-Columbia Market at the Hub.

Sunchoke tubers

Anybody want a peanut?

I remember growing peanuts in my grandmother’s garden as a kid.  They grew like little pea plants but had nothing to show for themselves except a few small flowers, low to the ground.  In the fall, though, we’d pull up the plants, and like magic, peanuts would be in amongst the roots.  It seemed to me that someone must have buried them there when I wasn’t looking.

Purple striped peanutsThese days I like to start them early before transplanting them out when the weather warms up.  They are a long season crop, and although we have sufficient summer for them, I get a better harvest by starting them early.

This year I planted purple striped peanuts.  I’m sure a few plants will make their way into your hands as well, if you watch for them to go on sale at the Hub, once the ground is warm enough to plant them.